A book review: Tobit’s Dog by Michael Nicholas Richard
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, April 14, 2014
The Old Testament book of Tobit, a book which is not included in most Protestant bibles but can be found in what is known as the Apocrypha, is a story which concerns a devout man named Tobit and his family, Israelites living in exile in Nineveh around 722 BC. Michael Nicholas Richard, author of Bogfoke and several short stories has recently published a novel with Ignatius Press entitled Tobit’s Dog. This adaptation recounts the biblical story of Tobit by placing it in a different, and perhaps more relatable context. While Richard carries the essential aspects of the biblical account in this new version, Tobit’s Dog is set in the framework of America’s south during the Depression and told from the vantage point of the American Negro before the civil rights movement. Comparatively, the exiled and oppressed family of the Old Testament is congruent with the plight of the ostracized and mistreated African-American family during heated racial tensions and injustices in America’s history. In contrast, the similarly ethnic Jewish people of the ancient Assyrian Empire are in this story characterized by racially diverse Catholic African-Americans. Racism becomes a predominant character of this novel.
From the very first pages, the tone of Tobit’s Dog is stretched to tightly strained levels of tension which transports the reader into the fearsome environment of pervasive evil. These tensions snap at various intervals throughout the story with more intensity than its biblical counterpart. Racism is a knife that cuts in both directions and the experiences of Tobit, his son Tobias, his neighbors and his kinfolk are augmented on each side of this dangerous tale by white people of both righteous and evil traits which are either out to help this family or set upon destroying them. As the story progresses several questions come to light:
• When you owe your life to someone you hate how does this affect your actions and attitudes toward them?
• Can sin be considered as the perpetual idea of seeing just how much we can get away with without consequences, and is goodness often limited by fear?
• When we “choose sides” in a deeply emotional and controversial struggle are we free from doubt and blinded to other options?
“Perceptions have a way of sneaking up so that people forget what is real is not always what is perceived,” writes Richard. In reading the biblical account of Tobit we recognize an ancient story told without the emotional attachment to the predicament of our spiritual ancestors. In Tobit’s Dog an emotional attachment is forged within the shame of racism in American history and the connection to our Catholic brothers and sisters despite our racial differences. Our perceptions lie somewhere within these two forms of attachment.
Most people experience a level of inner conflict between choosing what is right and what is wrong, but it is the dog in the modern story that has very little difficulty distinguishing between the two as is often the case with dogs. Okra, Tobit’s dog is the ever-present best friend that stays close to his people and assures their safety during their most difficult times. As the story winds down Richard ties up possible conflicts using tidy conclusions which may or may not have surfaced in the biblical counterpart. Flashbacks of struggles appear without prelude and tangential issues make their debut at the end of the story.
However, Richard often quotes directly from Scripture which lends strength to the retelling of this often-overlooked biblical story, and the smoothness with which he guides the reader into a dark era of history is brightened by the palpable presence of angels and the loyalty of man’s best friend.
To experience the essence of a biblical story come-to-life, order a copy of Tobit’s Dog at http://www.ignatius.com/Products/TOBD-H/tobits-dog.aspx